REPORTERS, EDITORS and broadcasters ought to be paying close attention to the public reaction to their latest travails -- government restrictions and big-ticket libel suits like Ariel Sharon's against Time Magazine. A great many Americans aren't the least bit concerned. They think the media are getting what they deserve. This paradox deserve pondering, especially by journalists who react so defensively to criticism.
In a denocracy, the law must protect freedom of the press maximally to guarantee that citizens can shopn at will in the marketplace of ideas and are provided with the information they need to act responsibly in their own interests. Maximal protection means there is room for error and irresponsibility.
It does not mean, however, that journalism characterized by error and irresponsibility should be considered acceptable and just because there is an acceptable rationale for permiting it under the law. And it does not mean that when there is a clash between constitutionally-protected values such as freedom of the press and an individual's right not to have his reputation unfairly dragged through mud, freedom of the press must prevail in every case.
Most journalists I have worked with at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune understand that in a democracy there has to be some running room between what the press is permitted to do and what it ought to do. Nevertheless, they sometimes defend a degree of irresponsibility they would not accept from the lawyer, doctor or insurance agent, on the ground that it is necessary to protect a relatively unexamined cliche called ''the public's right to know.''
But the First Amendment has nothing to say about any such right. If it exists, the best way to protect it is to practice more responsibility, and not to preach a right to less responsibility.
The First Amendment protects speech, or freedom of expression, unequivocally. The idea of a right to know, or something like it, has to be derived from democratic political theory, which holds that in a democracy there are certain things citizens need to know to make the entire enterprise of democracy viable.
It is this derivative interpretation of the First Amendment that is responsible for the special privileges and protection granted the press. Reporters get press cards that allow them to cross police lines so that they may report to the public what happened. They are admitted to presidential press conferences, or to the offices of high government officials, for the same reason. The body of libel law since the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964 has been written to protect the press on behalf of the public, although individuals may appeal to its protections as well.
If these protections and privileges exist exclusively to benefit the public, then the press has a corresponding responsibility to meet the public's needs for useful information as effectively as possible.
To be useful, information must be presented fairly and competently, with a professional concern for its truthfulness. Obviously, all of these terms are difficult to define, but common sense tells us the difference between a newspaper story or broadcast, that is prepared with those values in mind, and one that isn't.
For example, it seems fair to demand of our journalists that the material they present as factual should be verifiable by a third party, or attributed as explicity as possible to its source. If the ''facts'' in question would be disputed by others in a position to know them, a responsible journalist should indicate as much. Journalists should be candid when
The Press has a responsibility to meet the public's needs for useful information . . . their reporting reaches deadends; if some aspect of a situation cannot be explained, they should say so clearly. Readers and viewers are smart enough to appreciate that journalists working under deadline pressure, or with reluctant sources, cannot always find out all they might like to know.
News stories should be written so as to encourage an objective reading. That does not mean quantitative balancing of sources. It does mean making an honest judgement about the relevance of any source's information. A flat earther does not deserve equal space with someone arguing that the earth is an oblate spheriod.
Finally, news stories should provide enough information an intelligent non-specialist can use them to evaluate policy, political, human and moral considerations in a story.
If it were widely believed that journalists consistently made a good-faith effort to achieve high standards of fairness and thoroughness, there would be little public anger over what many people percieve as the arrogance and irresponsibility of the press, and no need at all for a defensive tone in the press's response to criticism, legitimate or otherwise.
Setting aside for the moment whether Gens. Sharon and William C. Westmoreland deserve to win their libel suits, there would be no suits if CBS and Time magazine had followed, even minimally, the principles of truthfulness elaborated above.
In the case of Sharon, the jury found that Time had defamed him with a false report. If Time's reporter David Halevy had been accurate enough in his reporting to identify as an inference his conclusion that Appendix B of the Kahan Commission Report contained language to the effect that Sharon gave the Gemayel family ''the feeling'' that he understood their need for revenge, there would have no suit. Indeed, if Time writer William Smith in New York had not inexplicably change the phrase ''gave the feeling'' to ''discussed,'' there might have been no suit.
And if George Crile, producer of ''The Uncounted Enemy,'' had permitted key supporters of Gen. Westmoreland such as George Carver of the CIA, Robert Komer, head of the pacification program in Vietnam, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and so on, to appear on the air, Westmoreland might not have sued CBS.
Crile was under no legal obligation to produce a documentary that encouraged an objective viewing on the part of his audience. Judge Pierre Leval, who is trying the CBS case, has said in court that being unfair to a public figure does not constitute libel. But Crile would have served the public -- and the news media -- better had he been less polemical.
There is substantial support for the case that Gen. Westmoreland behaved in a blamesworthy way, but the available evidence supports an equally powerful argument that he was in no way conspiritual, as the documentary sought to portray him. In producing a one-sided program, Crile was only doing what comes naturally in the production of television documentaries, but that makes the problem all the more troublesome. It is much easier to weed out aberrations than to reform a corrupt system.
Unless the Supreme Court uses the Westmoreland or Sharon case to rewrite existing libel law, both men are likely to lose their lawsuits -- nif not in the jury verdicts, then on appeal. But journalists would be mistaken to take favorable outcomes in these suits as vindication. The sloppy, negligent and irresponsible journalism practiced by both Time and CBS is not only unworthy of vindication, but deserving of sharp criticism, especially by journalists who are concerned with protecting First Amendment values. The loss of public trust engendered by the kind of journalism displayed in these two cases is likely to prove more costly than any number of multimillion dollar libel suits.
With public support, the administration could tighten the screws on the flow of information, and a conservative Supreme Court could rewrite the law to make if easier than it is now for public officials and public figures to sue for libel. With that in mind, the press might consider its own interest and tone down its hyperbolic defensiveness in favor of a low-keyed appeal for adherence to the standards that good journalists recognize as valid anyway.